SANTA FE, N.M. – New Mexico legislators are considering new criminal penalties aimed at protecting state and local judges and their immediate families from threats and the malicious sharing of personal information such as home addresses.
The bill responds to concerns about the physical safety of judges and about efforts to sway or disrupt judicial proceedings.
“It’s vital that we keep our judicial process neutral, objective and free from any outside influence,” Republican Rep. T. Ryan Lane of Aztec, an attorney and co-sponsor of the bill, told a legislative panel in January.
His bill would make it a felony to threaten a judge or their immediate family with the intent to instill fear of physical harm, retaliate against a judicial decision or interrupt a judge's official duties. Retaliation includes threats of bodily harm and property destruction.
The malicious sharing of personal information — or doxxing — would trigger misdemeanor sanctions.
On the federal level, security has been enhanced for U.S. courthouses and judges, which are protected by the U.S. Marshals Service, after a wave of protests battered courthouses in 2020. That same year, a deadly shooting at the home of U.S. District Judge Esther Salas left her son dead and husband wounded.
States each devise their own judicial security, with an array of approaches to protecting judges specifically from assault or under blanket protections for public officials. States including Colorado, Florida and New Jersey last year enacted laws to limit public access to information about judges or ban disclosure of certain personal information with criminal and civil penalties, according to the National Center for State Courts.
A New Mexico House floor debate and vote on the bill could take place as soon as Friday. Legislators have until Jan. 17 at noon to send bills to Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.
Criminal penalties under the bill also would apply to threats against current and former judges, from Supreme Court justices to magistrates and arbiters of domestic violence cases.
The state judiciary documented five threats against courthouses and 10 threats to judges in 2021, according to Chief Justice Michael Vigil. Vigil said he believes many threats go unreported by judges who don't want to amplify disruptions or discourage other fair criticism of their work.
Vigil described the travails last year of a judge who had a rock thrown at his dinning room window after his home address was broadcast over the radio in a hostile manner.
He also recounted a barrage of threats that shut down the Taos County courthouse in 2018 amid judicial proceedings about the mysterious death of a child at a remote family compound. He linked the threats to the decision by one judge to retire.
Bill Raftery, a senior analyst for the Virginia-based National Center for State Courts, said collective nationwide statistics on threats to state judges are difficult or impossible to track. He said a slim majority of 27 states have developed centralized repositories for tracking threats against courthouses and judges.